You may not realize just what happy Thanksgivings you’ve had until you’ve encountered the Blake family’s outing in The Humans, the play that marked Stephen Karam’s Broadway bow February 18 at the Helen Hayes Theatre. This lower-middle-class Irish-Catholic clan has grudgingly schlepped in from Pennsylvania, gathering at the younger daughter’s dingy Chinatown apartment in Manhattan, not so much to give thanks as advice and criticism.
Under Joe Mantello’s insightful direction, Karam’s play explores the disquieting ways that families love and fight, carving away at each other in invisible, close-range swipes—all the while putting up an affectionate family front.
Caught in the crosshairs of this crossfire is the daughter’s new live-in boyfriend, Richard Saad, tap-dancing as fast as he can to make nice with his new family. Not only is he not on the same page as the others, he’s not on the same planet.
Casting an Iranian-born actor in the role of Richard underscores this disparity. “And,” says Arian Moayed, the actor in question, “is literally saying the human spectrum is wide and vast, and you can’t put everyone in a bubble. You just can’t do it anymore.”
Moayed did the original reading of The Humans, but in subsequent workshops the role was done by Caucasians (Jim Parsons among them), and it was initially cast with one. Race wasn’t an issue when casting the role, notes Moayed, “I never thought about ethnicity. That’s not even mentioned in the play.” It did, however, come up when it came time to ascribe the role a last name for the Playbill. Karam came to Moayed for suggestions—the two go back to 2002 when they were acting interns and roommates at the Utah Shakespeare Festival. “I said, ‘It should be like yours, Stephen,’” says Moayed. “He’s second- or third-generation Lebanese. I didn’t have too much investment in ethnicity. What’s of interest is ‘Who is this person?’
“In the context of the play, Richard is an outsider on two counts. He looks like no one else onstage.” Moayed shares that stage with worthies like Jayne Houdyshell, Reed Birney, Cassie Beck, Sarah Steele and Lauren Klein. “And he’s much older than his girlfriend [played by Steele]. For me, knowing the family dynamics that I’m dealing with, I’m trying to do everything positive, ease everyone’s tensions. None of that is Middle Eastern. It’s not Asian. It’s not black. It’s human. It’s a guy who’s seen it all and come around.
“I gotta say that it’s nice—with the way that I look and the name that I have—that Richard represents love in this play. In a world where politicians want to put everyone in a box of hate and ‘don’t come here’—all that Trump nonsense—I am happy and proud to put this kind of message out there.”
Moayed made his Broadway debut playing an Iraqi gardener-turned-translator for American forces in occupied Baghdad in Rajiv Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, which earned him a Tony nomination. He paired with Joseph again last year for Guards at the Taj, where he played a 17th century Humayun guard at the Taj Mahal. “The reason we always work together is not because Rajiv is writing things Middle Eastern that I want to do. It’s because he’s writing fully fleshed-out characters.”
Those characters don’t come up that often for Moayed, especially in the film and television roles he’s been offered; when they do, his hopes can end up on the cutting-room floor, “but, in theatre, I have a huge say in my performance. I don’t need to advance a narrative that’s already been misguided. The fact that we talk about ISIS every day on the news is the equivalent of talking about the two guys who killed Matthew Shepard every day on the news.
“There are 1.5 billion Muslims in this world, and we’re focusing all of our energies on 50,000 assholes.... If you do the numbers, you’re talking about 0.0002 percent of that population taking up 99 percent of the news, and that’s not fair. Not only is it unfair, it’s unjust. And I’m not helping to advance that narrative at all.
“In the public discourse that we’re having right now, it’s very easy to put everyone in a two-toned atmosphere—good and bad, brown and white, Muslim and not Muslim—but the reality is we have passed all that. It’s silly in 2016 that we still have to talk about it. Humanity lives on a spectrum. Everyone is good, and everyone is bad. Quite honestly, to have a character as undefined as Richard is actually closer to what we are as Americans. We’re bigger than one thing. I [don’t know], maybe it’s just because I live in New York. New York is the democracy of the world.”